The Belarusian KGB arrested Wyborcza's long-time foreign correspondent Andrzej Poczobut in March 2021. As he spends his 500th day in prison, we once again urge international organizations and political decision-makers to make sure that all those responsible for his arrest and torture are brought to justice.
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"If Andrzej were a free man..." - is a phrase of the utterly improbable kind. The criminal Belarusian regime has now thrown him into a different prison for the fourth time.

A fifth is on the horizon: it's a gulag, where he will serve his sentence for allegedly inciting nationalist hatred and promoting totalitarian ideologies.

Absurd as they are, the charges mean that Andrzej now faces up to 12 years in prison. The trial is expected to begin soon, and nothing suggests that Lukashenko’s regime will show Andrzej any mercy. After all, he refused the dictator’s generous offer: freedom in exchange for humiliation and banishment. He pays for his choice every day.

Thinking about "what if", I simply console myself, because after all, in a situation where Lukashenko has lent Vladimir Putin his country to conduct attacks on Ukraine from his territory, there can be no question of any conciliatory gestures towards Poland. Poczobut will spend the next few months, if not years, behind bars- only because he was doing his job as a decent, independent journalist.

Had Andrzej been free, he would probably have rushed to the border with Ukraine on February 24 to write a report on columns of Russian tanks pouring into the neighboring country. He would have questioned eyewitnesses, called independent Belarusian experts, asking about the consequences. He would drive up to Belarusian airports used by the Russian air force and to bases where Russian missile launchers are deployed. His colorful and vivid reports would be reprinted by friendly newspapers in Western Europe.

If Andrzej were a free man, he would write about the Belarusian hospitals where Russian soldiers wounded in the battles near Kyiv were brought. And about the bags with bodies of soldiers whose lives could not be saved. The bags were overflowing in Belarusian morgues, and Russia was not eager to take them back.

Poczobut would write about the Belarusian resistance, which destroyed rail traffic control devices on a large scale to make it difficult for the Russian military to move soldiers and supplies into Ukraine. Experts say that it was thanks to the courage of these people that Lukashenko did not decide to send his soldiers to war. He understood that in such a situation even the harshest repressions would not be able to stop the outbreak of public protest.

"If Andrzej were a free man..."

Meanwhile, Poczobut is awaiting his trial, isolated from the rest of the world. There are no family visits. There are only letters. They must be written in Russian, and those written in Polish by Poczobut's son are intercepted by prison censors.

One can try to write between the lines, it even happens that relatives transcribe newspaper articles to prisoners in their letters. However, one must not directly refer to what is happening in the country or the world. One careless sentence and the letter lands in the trash. And when the censor is in a bad mood, he throws the letters away without even reading them.

The only person Poczobut can talk to is his lawyer. But the lawyer also has to be careful what he talks about. He talks about the investigation and the trial rather than about what is happening in Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia.

Knowledge of what's going on behind the prison walls is sourced exclusively from state propaganda channels. There is a prison library, state newspapers, and in some cells, there are television sets (in Poczobut's case, when he was still in Zhodino, it happened to be broken). After Russia invaded Ukraine, prisoners' access to news became even more restricted. Andrzej is aware of Russia's attack on Ukraine, no doubt. He realizes that Belarus did not join Putin in this aggression – state propaganda would surely mention that- and that Ukraine is effectively defending itself, as the capturing of Kyiv has still not been announced.

For a journalist locked up in a prison cell, this is mental torture as severe as being locked in a death block, where convicts who are about to be shot in the back of their head by a Belarusian executioner spend their last days. They wanted to break Andrzej’s will, but he endured.

On the evening of March 24, 2021, eight hours before his arrest, Andrzej sent a final article to the editor in Warsaw. In it, he proved that the Polish government's attempts to appease Alexander Lukashenko make no sense because the dictator has a deep hatred for Poland. If Warsaw tries to get along, Lukashenko will take advantage of the situation and stab Poland in the back.

This is a bitter summary of the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s policy toward Belarus. The ruling camp has been cozying up to Lukashenko since 2016, sending its top politicians at the time to Minsk, including the Speaker of the Senate Stanisław Karczewski (who later said Lukashenko was a kind man), the Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski, and Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The Polish government was hoping for investments in Belarus, and in return was ready to cut support for the Belarusian opposition and Poles living in Belarus. Andrzej was apparently afraid that after protests following Lukashenko's rigged elections have died down and the civic revolution in Warsaw has been stifled, "realists" would triumph and look for pragmatic solutions...

If Andrzej Poczobut were a free man today, I think he would be writing similar warnings to all those "pragmatists" who are urging the West to stop arming Ukraine and force it to make concessions to Russia.

Putin is, after all, just as much of a faithful man as Lukashenko. Only he has more blood on his hands...

You have already spent 500 days behind bars. Andrzej, we are with you, bear with us!

***

Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine. Our journalists are on the front lines in 32 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

We decided to make our service available to everyone free of charge in order to provide access to high quality journalism for expats and English speakers interested in Polish affairs.

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